McAdams On: The Last Over-the-Air Bender

The broadcast television industry was whistling in the wind. Parading its record of public service in the way of AMBER Alerts, emergency warnings and free air time for political debates. Trumpeting broadcast television as the primary provider of local news throughout the country. Reasoning that broadcasting remains the most efficient use of radio frequency spectrum.

The industry was shouted down. By the First Web Surfer himself. The gist of President Barack Obama’s 1,344-word memo, entitled “Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution,” directed federal agencies to cough up 500 MHz of spectrum for broadband. Come what may.

Shots were fired from these parts before on the use of “unleashing,” and whether the term properly represents what’s actually going on here. The Federal Communications Commission last week commenced its own “unleashing” of Mobile Satellite Spectrum for wireless broadband. A search of the commission’s Web site turns up 372 unleashings. The leash industry should be trembling. So should the broadcast industry.

The presidential memo cheat sheet, issued by the National Economic Counsel, contains an edifying bit of verbiage in a paragraph calling for an inventory of current spectrum users: “...this inventory is not necessary to enable the repurposing of large swaths of spectrum.”

That would appear give the Federal Communications Commission authority to start moving incumbents whether or not Congress passes a spectrum inventory bill. The reality is, it will be easier for the FCC to squeeze broadcasters off the air than to comb through current licenses for unused spectrum. There must be thousands of licenses issued--a total is hard to come by. The fed’s radio frequency allocation chart looks like a distorted spectrograph. There are myriad licensees in each of those tiny blocks of color. How many are sitting on spectrum that could otherwise be unleashed? The billion dollar question.

What’s actually going on here depends on one’s perspective. It appears to be legacy building from an observational standpoint. For folks disillusioned with cellular networks, the Nationwide Broadband Plan sounds like a pretty good deal Who doesn’t want a handheld computer TV Skype phone that works everywhere? Unfortunately, there’s not been one word of discussion about related costs to taxpayers and consumers.

Current wireless broadband plans run around $60 a month plus overage charges, one-time $30 to $35 activation fees and up to $200 for early contract termination. This is for service on existing cellular networks. Four of five providers compared by Mobile Broadband Reviews list coverage as “nationwide.” It would appear that the United States already has nationwide broadband. So what’s up with a government-funded nationwide broadband plan? Presumably, the idea is to create one giant network accessible from anywhere, anytime.

Rare is the electronically inclined individual who doesn’t want ubiquitous Internet connectivity. We’ve come to rely so thoroughly on the Matrix that we can’t leave our homes to fetch Cheez Doodles and a six-pack without it. Or so we’re led to believe. There are still people out there who don’t pick up e-mails with what used to be known as cell phones. Some of us are more than happy to unplug once in a while.

Such details have little bearing on the administration’s insistent march toward spectrum reallocation. Broadcast television is considered a dinosaur holding up a thoroughbred. It doesn’t matter what the final picture of the government’s nationwide broadband plan looks like. The final picture of broadcast television appears to be clearer all the time. If it’s truly the death scene it appears to be, let’s hope it’s a doozy.